COVID-19 response across the African continent has been complicated by its enormous energy access crisis, with over 1 billion Africans lacking reliable power. Bill Lenihan, CEO of ZOLA Electric spoke to Africa Oil & Power about the company’s ability to get power where it’s needed.
Please provide an overview of the initiatives that ZOLA has implemented to expand energy access across the continent in the context of COVID-19?
Our business delivers reliable and affordable energy to Africa. Everything we do today is to offer support to survive and thrive during this crisis. We are starting to see COVID-19 spread across Africa, the case rates are increasing and right now the best tools that the world has to fight this pandemic are being deployed across the globe; social distancing, emergency clinics, ventilators, medicine and emergency food distribution.
We really need rapid mobilization of flexible energy support to the frontlines, and that is what ZOLA Electric does; we have one million customers throughout Africa that are enabled to have a reliable source of energy. One way to support people while working from home is by providing them with our ZOLA FLEX, a plug-and-play, connected, solar and storage hybrid power system. The kit gets energy to people’s homes, it has Wi-Fi for internet connection and powers lighting so that people can work from home.
We have had this product for a while now and it has come in very handy during this crisis. We are currently in discussions about projects related to powering clinics; these are the larger systems that would power everything in a small clinic like ventilators and refrigerators. Our company delivers energy to the frontlines and that is what is needed now holistically across Africa. This is not a new project but we are implementing it with urgency.
How do your markets differ in terms of receptiveness to off-grid solutions; who are you partnering with and are there other development institutions and private sector companies involved?
Zola has the best partners in the world, Tesla is one of our largest shareholders, General Electric is also a shareholder and partner, EDF a French company which is one of the largest utilities in the world and is one of our investors and partners in West Africa, Total is also a partner from an investment perspective and a market distribution perspective. We also have very strong capital partners at development institutions. We have partnered with the International Finance Corporation in the past, we are currently partnered with the African Development Bank and FMO, we’re are also working with the World Bank in Nigeria. ZOLA recently received an essential service status in Rwanda, Ghana and Nigeria, and we are working with governments and partners in Ivory Coast and other countries to achieve similar status.
How critical is consistent power access to preventing the further spread of COVID-19 across the continent?
You have two efforts going around COVID-19, the first one is controlling transmission and you can do that through social distancing. Once you have achieved that, you need to provide energy, because if people do not have energy they are most likely to fail at staying at home and practicing social distancing. If you cannot provide them with energy they are going to leave their homes to go to their neighbors and other communities to get food and more information on COVID-19.
What have been the primary obstacles to providing energy access to clinics, emergency food distribution centers, etc.?
The primary obstacle is time. It is not as simple as leaving our software and hardware platforms at the ports of Nigeria, for example, we need to ensure that they get to the frontline and people’s homes, they have to be commissioned and be monitored and audited. Operations in Africa right now are difficult because markets and cities are shutting down and people do not want to be in front of each other, there is fear out there and it makes it harder to enable.
If you do not get power to the frontlines it cannot power ventilators, clinics and food distribution and importantly you cannot enable people to live in isolation. People need basic energy to have lights, store their food, stay connected for information and work from home. So, the easiest way to think about this is that energy is required everywhere to do all of these things and the grid is not going to solve this because it won’t happen in time.
In terms of existing energy infrastructure, what makes the African continent a susceptible region for the spread of COVID-19, and conversely, which characteristics work in its favor?
The conventional wisdom for Africa is that it has an unbelievably young population, I am not a scientist, but the youth has more advantage in fighting COVID-19, it is understood that heat is also a good condition to fight the pandemic and most regions in Africa are warm. Africa does have some advantages that most parts of the world do not have, but there are also really major disadvantages like malnutrition and pre-existing conditions that make your body more susceptible to it. In general, Africa has poor healthcare systems, even though it has had to battle with other diseases like Ebola, so in a way, you would say it has been battle-tested, but the healthcare system and lack of energy and sophisticated beds for patients during this time could hinder the fight against COVID-19. Our mission now as a company is different than it was a few months ago, our mission now is to support that weakness we want to turn into a strength.